A Talent to Annoy. Essays, Journalism & Reviews 1929-1971, by Nancy Mitford.

Review published on May 25, 2013. Reviewed by Verity Butler

[product sku=”9781907429798″]Before reading this book I had only a fleeting knowledge of Nancy Mitford, so I took to Wikipedia to gain a little more of an insight. By all accounts she was a real fire-cracker of a lady. She was the life and soul of the party in her youth as one of the “Bright Young People” on the London scene, and with a kind of temerity and force of character that made her an irrepressible force to be reckoned with.

Mitford is best remembered for her novels about Upper-class life in England, but she also penned several biographies and had a very successful career as a columnist, book reviewer and journalist.

Often when I read collections of essays such as this I have to read it alongside a fiction book; the thought of facing so many essays in one go is too dry. I was extremely gratified to find that this is in no way the case with “A Talent to Annoy”. Nancy Mitford is hilariously honest and bold in sharing her feelings about the topics she writes about. She is unrepentant and her voice is so clear; if she didn’t like a book and felt the author was poor, she made her feelings known and consequences be damned!

Although she doesn’t sugar-coat her criticisms, there is no sense of bad feeling behind it. Her reviews balance enough humour alongside her honesty to make the overall tone of the piece good natured. She is never mean for the sake of being mean.

As well as conveying her wicked humour so deliciously (as perfectly demonstrated in the now infamous “The English Aristocracy” where she playfully expounds on the merits of U versus non-U speak), Mitford delivers thoughtful, emotional essays with just as much aplomb.

My favourite essay of the collection, “A Bad Time”, moved Mitford to tears as she was writing it, and very nearly caused me to shed a tear as a reader. In this essay, Mitford takes us through the ill-fated polar expedition of Captain Scott. Each of the key figures of the expedition are introduced wonderfully to the reader, intimate details of their days on their polar journey are shared and by the time the perilous and ultimately tragic end to their journey is described the reader is emotionally invested in the whole tale. Mitford’s own passion and sadness at the story is felt with every line written.

Nancy Mitford is one of the most gifted, effervescent and droll writers I have ever read, and this collection of essays is a must read.

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